Female Elements in Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison Term Paper

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Female Elements in "Song of Solomon" by Toni Morrison

Focus on Women

Critical Analysis

Reluctance to Support the Black Struggle

In Sula, Ajax would like to fly, and in Morrison highly acclaimed Song of Solomon (1977) the metaphor of flight takes center stage. Most critics judged the novel, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, to be her most ambitious work, longer and more complex than the two earlier novels. One important difference is her switch to a male protagonist. In addition, Song has a number of settings, ranging from Michigan to the South and the roots of the characters. Morrison has said that in books about males, one must have a more expansive setting, since women have lived out their lives in houses, whereas men have had a greater freedom to roam. This expansive setting has given Song a more sprawling character (Watkins, pg. 50).

Focus on Women

As many critics have stated, despite its male protagonist, women are really the focus of Song; and again Morrison says much about their strengths and weaknesses, their sufferings and triumphs, and their relations with black men. As in her earlier novels, in Song Morrison shows the deep conflict between the pain of black men and what that pain causes them to do to their women. She also shows how too much mothering can "emasculate" both men and women, how women are the carriers of the culture in the black community, and how women's insights can lead men to a deeper understanding of themselves, for it is through his Aunt Pilate that Milkman achieves the goals of his quest.Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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TOPIC: Term Paper on Female Elements in Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison Assignment

Song is the bildungsroman of Macon (Milkman) Dead, Jr., a young, middle-class black raised in a northern city in a cold and sterile home. Milkman has no consciousness of his roots in black culture, his father, a successful businessman, being ashamed of his own humble past. Macon, Sr., is a bitter man who hates his only sister, despises the poor blacks he exploits, and struggles to accumulate as many bourgeois trappings as he can, one being his light-skinned wife, Ruth, the daughter of the only black doctor in town. Macon represents patriarchal values to an extreme. He treats his wife and daughters with contempt (they are women) and is especially contemptuous of Ruth because he suspects that she had incestuous relations with her father. Raising Milkman to take over the family business one day, Macon has given him very little sense of self; Milkman wants nice things and enjoys being an important man in the black community, but he hates the power his father has over him. Thus the story has strong oedipal resonances.

Literature Review

The plot of Song concerns Milkman's figurative and literal journey to the land of his ancestors in order to discover who he is. The journey involves all the aspects of the typical Western quest: physical danger and pain; rebirth (journeys into and out of caves and forests); encounters with strange, wise people, male and female, who help him on his way; beautiful women who offer love and advice; and fights with men who then become comrades. Milkman's quest ostensibly begins in a desire to locate the family fortune, some bags of gold that his father and aunt had discovered in a cave as children; the "gold" he eventually finds is his real family name (Solomon or Shalimar) and the knowledge that his great-grandfather was an African chief who flew away from slavery, back to Africa. In the process of the search he learns that he, too, can "fly": "If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it" (Song of Solomon, 337). Through knowledge of self and one's roots, through acknowledgment of one's bonds with others, and through pain and self-examination, one can achieve spiritual transcendence and rise to new heights of involvement in the great business of life (Marilyn Atlas). According to Barbara Rigney, one must enter the "wild zone," beyond the constraints of the dominant culture and consciousness, the zone that women find easier to inhabit than do men.

Milkman's (his name derives from his prolonged nursing by Ruth) most important guide and the most important character in Song is his Aunt Pilate. Morrison has said that black novels should have an ancestor, "timeless people whose relationships to the characters are benevolent, instructive, and protective" (BWW 344). As the ancestor in Song, Pilate shows Milkman how to love and forgive the value of a natural life, the unimportance of material possessions, and the importance of learning one's identity. Even though she has no navel, implying her isolation from others, and thus has been rejected throughout her life, Pilate has a firm sense of self, carrying it symbolically on a piece of paper in a little metal box made into an earring. She has never let her hardships, which include losing several lovers, being ostracized many times by various black communities, and being hated by her own brother, defeat her (RO 136). She dies by a bullet meant for Milkman on the spot where Solomon flew away (ironically, a woman named for the Christ killer gives her life for another), and as she dies, she tells him, "I wish I'd a knowed more people. I would of loved 'em all. If I'd a knowed more, I would a loved more" (336).

This lesson of universal love is not lost on Milkman, who realizes that "without leaving the ground" Pilate could always fly. It is through love that we give life meaning, love that comes through self-knowledge and acknowledgment of our duties to others. It could be argued that this is an advance on the moral vision we saw in Sula. Sula's flight destroys, while Pilate's enriches. In Song there is no ambiguity about the value of living in harmony and consideration for others.

Critical Analysis

Song of Solomon is equally Pilate's bildungsroman (RO, 136). Morrison shows us Pilate as a woman in harmony with her natural environment; she scorns material possessions and cares little about her personal appearance, refusing to wear shoes, and makes wine for a living. Though what she does is illegal, she refuses to allow the usual activities of a wine house (prostitution) to take place on her property. As a typical Morrison pariah, Pilate cannot be part of the community, and so she invents a lifestyle for herself, creating a home for her daughter, Reba, and granddaughter, Hagar, that is a refuge, a place of warmth and comfort that contrasts with the sterile environment of Milkman's house. In an early scene of the novel we see Macon Dead standing outside his sister's home, irresistibly drawn to its enveloping warmth:

They were singing some melody that Pilate was leading. A phrase that the other two were taking up and building on. Her powerful contralto, Reba's piercing soprano in counterpoint, and the soft voice of the girl Hagar... pulled him like a carpet tack under the influence of a magnet. Treading as lightly as he could, he crept up to the side window where the candlelight flickered lowest and peeped in. Reba was cutting her toenails with a kitchen knife or a switchblade, her long neck bent almost to her knees. The girl Hagar was braiding her hair, while Pilate, whose face he could not see because her back was to the window, was stirring something in a pot (Marianne, 177).

Ironically, Macon has forbidden Milkman to enter Pilate's house, but he himself cannot keep away. As Rigney says, this is the nurturant, warm "preoedipal maternal space" that all Morrison characters, male and female, would love to enter; it contrasts with the masculine world of Macon's business, in which he easily evicts a poor family.

Song could be seen as incorporating cultural feminist values. Stephanie Demetrakopulos believes that Milkman finds himself through the "feminine principle" and women themselves. Men like Macon lose their souls in their search for wealth and power, and can find them only by surrender to the feminine within (Demetrakopulos NDS 94). Similarly, Guitar Bains, Milkman's best friend, cuts himself off from the world of women and children by joining the radical black organization Seven Days, a group dedicated to returning white violence with black violence. Significantly, it is Guitar's bullet, meant for Milkman, whom he believes has betrayed the black cause, that slays Pilate. However attractive this interpretation is, though, it should not be construed as feminist separatism. Just as men are damaged by cutting themselves off from the softer parts within themselves, so are women damaged when cut off from the world of men.

For example, Pilate's daughter and granddaughter obviously have been hurt by being raised with no significant males in their lives. Reba knows little about men and is weak and floating, still dependent on her mother in her fifties. Though Morrison suggests Reba may be a little slow-witted, she also tells us that having no father was not good for Reba. In the same way, the spoiled Hagar knows nothing about men, cannot take care… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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